Sunday, January 4, 2015

Various Artists – Tulare Dust: a songwriters’ tribute to Merle Haggard (Expanded Edition)

Tulare Dust: a songwriters’ tribute to Merle Haggard (Expanded Edition)

Tulare Dust: a songwriters’ tribute to Merle Haggard, co-produced by Tom Russell and Dave Alvin and originally released in 1994, was one of the very finest tribute albums of that era and featured a great collection of 15 roots artists singing their favorite songs from Merle Haggard’s impressive catalog.

Tulare Dust has recently been reissued as an expanded 2-CD set; the first CD is the original album while the second CD is live tracks taken from the CD release concert which featured about half the artists each doing their Haggard selection plus one of their own.

Dave Alvin nails the significance of Haggard in the liner notes to this new edition when he writes that Haggard “has always been one of the great American songwriters in the folk music tradition. Being in this folk tradition doesn’t necessarily just mean strumming an acoustic guitar in a coffee house, it can also mean learning your musical craft from your elders, then taking what you’ve learned and finding your own voice inside that musical and community tradition. It’s what Muddy Waters and Bill Monroe did. It’s what Hank Williams, Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and Curtis Mayfield did. It’s exactly what Merle Haggard did.”

Haggard himself has paid tribute to some of those musical elders – notably Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills – who influenced him. But, as becomes obvious in listening to some of these songs, the influence of Woody Guthrie is also strongly felt in Haggard’s work. Listen to Tom Russell’s great medley of “Tulare Dust/They’re Tearing the Labor Camps Down” to understand that Haggard’s own family were among the waves of Okies who risked all of their do-re-mi trying to find a better life in California during the Dust Bowl era.

That Guthrie influence can also be heard in such songs as “Kern River,” sung from deep-in-the-traditional-well by Dave Alvin and “A Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today,” sung with conviction by Peter Case.

Some of my other favorite tracks include Iris DeMent’s world-weary version of “Big City”; Lucinda Williams’ heartbreaking version of the heartbroken “You Don’t Have Very Far to Go”; Marshall Crenshaw’s rendition of the separation song “Silver Wings”; and Steve Young’s sad version of “Shopping for Dresses,” Haggard’s portrait of loneliness.

Another highlight is R&B singer Barrence Whitfield’s very affecting take on “Irma Jackson,” Haggard’s poignant song about inter-racial love – a song that was taboo-breaking in the world of early-1970s country music.

Among the best of the songwriters’ original material on the second CD are Tom Russell’s always exciting “Gallo del Cielo,” Dave Alvin’s “King of California,” Billy Joe Shaver’s “Georgia on a Fast Train,” and Peter Case’s “A Little Wind (Could Blow Me Away),” about Elvis Presley's comeback concert, which was co-written by Tom Russell.

Tulare Dust: a songwriters’ tribute to Merle Haggard was a great album 20 years ago and is made even greater by the inclusion of the second live disc.

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--Mike Regenstreif

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